2007 / Music

Review: Bjork’s ‘Volta’ Has Weird Songs That Are More Accessible

Eccentric Icelandic Singer Releases Sixth Solo Disc

For most folks, Bjork isn’t a spritely, singing superstar but a head-shake-worthy anecdote shared around the water cooler. Like Courtney Love or Marilyn Manson, she is perceived more as a celebrity famous for her ability to inspire rubbernecking and head scratching on the part of media watchers than for her artistic talents.

Photo: Elektra Records/Atlantic Records

Photo: Elektra Records/Atlantic Records

She obviously courts the attention, but the Iceland native is a committed bohemian and as such, dedicated to the idea of being weird for weirdness’ sake.

First, there were the artsy and inscrutable videos with the crooner decked out in odd outfits and people scampering around in animals costumes or dressed up like mailboxes. Then, there was her flailing attack on a TV reporter in an overseas airport — all caught on film. Finally, she perfectly capped more than a decade of bizarre fashion choices when she infamously walked the red carpet of the 2001 Oscars with a dress that utilized a creepily realistic swan’s neck draped around her neck.

Unlike Love or Manson, however, Bjork’s eccentricities distract from — not compensate for — her creative abilities. As headlines focus on what wardrobe wackiness she is up to, she has continued to forge a career as one of the few bastions of eclecticism in pop music. Bjork has also become an alternative-music icon whose commitment to taking an avant-garde approach to music is only rivaled by her enduring love of pop music structures. What makes Bjork a unique figure in the music industry isn’t her unorthodox, accented singing style, but her choice of merging dispirit genres and peculiar instrumentation and how she’s continually used them to extend the barriers of pop music. Really, what’s so weird about that?

After two albums that had her veering farther in the experimentalist direction, Bjork’s newest disc, “Volta,” is a more immediately accessible compilation and restores the balance between artiness and pop-chart smarts that she established on her earliest and best-loved solo records, “Debut” and “Post.” The new album readily combines her customary abstract/deconstructionist sensibilities and egalitarian approach to music — rock, old-fashioned torch ballads, industrial music, electronica and ethnic music — with buoyant melodies.

Like her best work from the early ’90s, the music on “Volta” falls into two broad categories: Either it has a special emphasis on erratic vocal melodies or it has a potent rhythmic base that allows her singing to even more wildly crisscross the pocket of the song. Unlike previous efforts, however, the former Sugarcubes frontwoman is now showing herself to be an increasingly sophisticated songwriter and arranger. While the best cuts on “Volta” aren’t irresistibly quirky hits of the caliber “Human Behaviour” or “Army Of Me,” they’re certainly enjoyable on a more cerebral, beard-stroking level.

To accomplish this heady mission, Bjork settled on an unusual list of musicians to function as collaborators. They included a horn section, various African and Asian musicians and mainstream luminaries like singer Antony Hegarty (of Antony and The Johnsons) and hip-hop beatmaker Timbaland. The latter two leave an especially noticeable imprint on the tracks that they appear on and yet, Bjork never surrenders dominance. We never suspect, especially in the case of Timbaland, that the songs had been peddled to Jennifer Lopez earlier in the week.

Opening track “Earth Intruders” seems tailor-made for Bjork. Tim creates a frenetic rhythmic foundation of tribal drumming and hyperactive synth bass for Bjork’s skittish singing to glide over and guide along. On “Innocence,” Tim gets more creative by developing a beat out of a man’s wheezy cough. The Nine Inch Nails-like sound, which functions as the downbeat, leaps from the stereo speakers like a punch to the nose. The rhythm is filled out by twitchy record scratches and keyboard squiggles. Bjork’s vocals are the most traditional aspect of the track. Her voice soars, using both falsetto and Grover-like girlish growls, to duck through the mechanical effects like she’s piloting through explosions in a minefield.

Her two duets with vocalist Antony are less unpredictable and more explicitly personal. Antony’s rich, melodramatic tone is a powerful counterpoint to Bjork’s unique vocal skills. They romantically trade lines of a 19th century poem on “Dull Flame Of Desire,” their voices sometimes blending and rubbing against each other and then bouncing apart. Besides the marching beat of a bass drum, the only accompaniment is a mini-suite performed only by horns that resembles the movie themes that appear on Pink Floyd’s pre-“Dark Side Of The Moon” records. The pair’s second partnering, “My Juvenile,” demands more patience. Besides their layered voices, the only music is a clavichord, which might as well be an out-of-tune piano. The cut’s sentiment — love for one’s child — is sweet enough, but the song is ultimately too abstract and the tempo too slow-moving.

At the core of “Volta,” Bjork becomes bolder and more deeply explores her interest in ethnomusicology. She sings “I See Who You Are” like an ordinary ballad, but her use of Asian string instruments, skittering beside and behind her voice, sounds so random that you might think free jazz giant Ornette Coleman is playing them. “Hope” is anchored by the kora, a Middle Eastern stringed instrument that sounds similar to a harp, which flutters along with Bjork’s breathy vocal delivery to a simplified Timbaland synthetic drum pattern. “Declare Independence” is electro-clash punk, based on a sinister bass figure and an array of digital squawks that culminate in Bjork howling to the furious sound of frazzled guitar and head-banging drums. “Vertebrae By Vertebrae” takes a completely different strategy. It’s a steady build, developed on a repeating pattern of horns that bring to mind an Alfred Hitchcock score.

The record’s most important track is “Wanderlust,” which is a veiled statement of Bjork’s artistic purpose. On the surface, Bjork appears to be singing about leaving an unwelcome home to an ordinary techno beat paired with a complex arrangement of brass. “I cannot stomach their rights and wrongs. I have lost my origin/And I don’t want to find it again,” she sings. But, reading between the lines, it soon becomes apparent that the home that she’s fleeing is in her head and she’s rebelling against her worst instincts. She’s leaving behind not a physical space, but strictures, custom and conformity. “I feel at home whenever the unknown surrounds me,” she croons. Her voice continues to waver as free-spiritedly as her artistic temperament.

“Wanderlust,” and “Volta” itself, zero in on the challenges of being an artistic rebel. With such dedication, artists like Bjork will always be susceptible to fumbles for their willingness to stretch outside of themselves and mess with musical traditions. They will always be prone to listeners questioning, “What was she thinking?”

“Volta” is as random as Bjork’s tastes in fashion. But, in this instance, most of her weird experiments are thrilling. She continually impresses by her ability to transform old sounds and tired concepts into something original.

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Note: David’s nationally syndicated music column, Soundbytes, appeared in the Entertainment section of all Internet Broadcasting websites. This column was originally published there.

©Copyright 2007 by David Hyland. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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